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Arkansas Police Wrongfully Arrest Addicted Mom For Murder After Preterm Birth

Sun, 06/10/2018 - 06:24
Based on her statements to medical professionals, her medical records, and the evidence in the motel room, they arrested her for second degree murder and "introduction of a controlled substance into the body of another".

Angela Miller, 23, probably wishes she'd never entered the land of God, guns, and apparently Gilead-inspired small town cops.

But for whatever reason she found herself pregnant in Arkansas -- where we're having to fight for access to medical abortion, leaving only one functioning abortion provider in the state.  

After she'd allegedly injected methamphetamine in a motel in Benton, a small town near the intersections of two interstates, she went into early labor on Tuesday, June 5th.  She was only 24 weeks along.  She had someone at the motel call 911 for her, and her baby lived briefly after its too-early birth under the care of medical professionals at Saline Memorial Hospital.  Sadly, at 24 weeks, it's a coin-toss in the best of times as to whether the baby will survive.  She lost the toss, and her child.

You might think that was enough of a nightmare, but it was only the beginning.

See, Angela was from a state that criminalized assaults against pregnant women, not assaults against fetuses.  She probably hadn't heard of the many women in red states arrested for poor pregnancy outcomes.  She probably felt safe being honest with the physicians trying to save her child about her drug use.

She wasn't in Oregon anymore, though.

Instead, the doctors felt compelled (as mandated reporters) to report anything that could possibly have been considered child abuse or neglect.  With this child having died after taking a breath (therefore not a stillbirth), the local police felt compelled to investigate and thought they could make a case, since the child had died a "person" even if what they claimed caused the death occurred before delivery.  They used 911 records from her call for help to go to the motel she was staying at, where they found paraphernalia for injecting methamphetamine -- their final piece of evidence, and compelling enough apparently for many locals interviewed.

Based on her statements to medical professionals, her medical records, and the evidence in the motel room, they arrested her for second degree murder and "introduction of a controlled substance into the body of another".   As soon as she was considered stable enough to release from the hospital -- Thursday, June 7 -- the proud cops took her to the Saline County Detention Center.  They triumphantly posted a media release about the arrest, even.  Mighty proud folks!

Fortunately, the Saline County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney schooled them for their errors in Angela's bail hearing today.  No, you still can't charge a pregnant woman for a crime committed against her own unborn fetus, even if the child lives a short time after birth.  Nor can you apply a law that was clearly designed to address drug-facilitated sexual assault to a pregnant woman for actions while she was still pregnant.  

The only remaining charges Angela faces, at least at this time, are for the drugs themselves.  Her bond has been set at $5,000, and while the prosecutor said they would continue to see what laws on the books applied, the charges based on ignorant police attempts to use laws designed to protect women against her at one of the worst times in her life have been dismissed.

But how many others will go through a similar experience after being honest with their physicians?

The solution to maternal substance abuse is not found in laws that scare women away from doctors when they need them the most, or laws that discourage them from full and frank disclosure.  I personally wonder if her arrest for the drugs isn't actually "fruit of the poisonous tree", if warrants were properly obtained, etc, but hope that if only convicted of a small drug offense she can still get the treatment she needs.  

Now part of that treatment is going to be for the trauma of thinking she might not get out of prison for decades, though.  Even if she is lucky in comparison to many that her overcharging was addressed quickly.  

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State’s Rights Bill on Marijuana Threatens to Divide Trump Administration

Fri, 06/08/2018 - 08:00
Several marijuana proposals are floating around Congress, including sweeping bills embraced by leading Democrats that would end federal prohibition for good and decriminalize marijuana nationwide.

Lawmakers have introduced bipartisan legislation that would end federal marijuana prohibition in states that have legalized cannabis products for medical and recreational use. President Trump has previously indicated that he would support such a bill, setting the stage for a potential showdown with the Justice Department and one of his least favorite employees: Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Unveiled on Thursday by members of Congress from states that have legalized weed, the legislation takes a “state’s rights” approach to marijuana favored by many Republicans and even Trump, although the president is known to change his mind. The bill, known as the STATES Act, would not legalize marijuana nationally. Instead, it allows US states, territories and tribal governments to develop their own marijuana regulations without fear of federal interference, as long as the regulations meet certain guidelines.

Sessions, a seasoned drug warrior who hates marijuana, has rescinded an Obama-era memo that generally protected legal marijuana businesses from federal raids, and asked lawmakers to ditch a longstanding policy that has prevented federal law enforcement from interfering with the medical marijuana industry.

Sessions’s hard-line approach to marijuana has put him at odds with members of his own party, and as the midterms approach, polls show that 70 percent of voters oppose the enforcement of federal prohibition in legalized states, so the legislation could very well find its way to the president’s desk. The top Republican sponsoring the bill, Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) charged with winning elections and strengthening the GOP’s majority in the Senate.

Earlier this year, Gardner retaliated against Sessions’s attacks on legal weed by threatening to block Justice Department nominations in the Senate. This won him a phone call with the president, who reportedly promised to support legislation protecting states that have legalized marijuana from federal crackdowns. During his campaign for office, Trump repeatedly said the legalization question should be left up to the states.

“The bipartisan, commonsense bill ensures the federal government will respect the will of the voters — whether that is legalization or prohibition — and not interfere in any states’ legal marijuana industry,” Gardner said in a statement.

Justin Strekal, political director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the bill introduced this week falls within the parameters of what Trump told Gardner he would support during their discussion in April. By signaling early support for such legislation, Trump has gone “way further” toward supporting major marijuana reform than any previous president.

“Given that this bill is being co-led by Sen. Gardner, who is the head of the NRSC, it is a sign that it is time for the Republican-led Senate to address this issue and move the legislation forward,” Strekal said in an email to Truthout.

Trump may choose to stay silent on the bill for the time being, but if it advances through Congress, he will be forced to take a position. Coming out in favor of the bill could further sour his already troubled relationship with Sessions, who left the president fuming last year when he recused himself from the federal probe into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, despite Trump’s orders.

The bill would effectively set the minimum legal age for using marijuana at 21 nationwide.

The bill would exempt states that have legalized marijuana from the section of the Controlled Substances Act that prohibits cannabis use and lists the drug as a dangerous substance with no medical value. This would protect both businesses and individual users, as long as they follow state rules around marijuana use and distribution. State and federal law enforcement could still target black market marijuana operations.

The legislation would also clarify that financial transactions with legal marijuana businesses do not constitute drug trafficking. For years, major banks and other financial institutions have refused to open accounts for legal marijuana growers and retailers due to federal prohibition, forcing entrepreneurs to do business with large amounts of cash.

The STATES Act requires state marijuana regulations to meet certain stipulations, including rules prohibiting marijuana businesses from hiring employees under the age of 18 and selling marijuana in highway rest areas and truck stops. The bill would also effectively set the minimum legal age for using marijuana at 21 nationwide.

It would also amend the statute to recognize that industrial hemp is not the same as marijuana, which would benefit the growing industry behind a crop used to make food, medicine, textiles and other products.

Several marijuana proposals are floating around Congress, including sweeping bills embraced by leading Democrats that would end federal prohibition for good and decriminalize marijuana nationwide. However, with Republicans in control of Congress and Trump in the White House, legislation that leaves marijuana legalization up to the states has the best chance of gaining traction — and furthering the divide between the president and his attorney general.


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NYT Food Columnist Michael Pollan Talks Psychedelics, Science and Mental Health

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 16:20
Click here for reuse options! A discussion about the state of psychedelic drugs and a skeptical culture.

Longtime Michael Pollan fans will find How To Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence is a different book from his past work - mostly. Although in the past, Pollan wrote about food and agriculture, his love of nature carries through to his new book, especially in one section when he forages for magic mushrooms with mushroom expert Paul Stamets. As in past books, he uses an engaging, first-person style of telling a story by introducing readers to the people he meets along the way who teach him about various topics. Unlike previous books, instead of teaching him about food and agriculture, the characters you'll meet in this book teach about psychedelic drugs. Specifically: LSD, psilocybin (the psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms), ayahuasca, and the dried and smoked venom of a toad that Pollan and others refer to as "the toad."

The new book is divided into distinct parts (six, instead of four this time). Pollan reviews the history of psychedelics: how they were discovered, researched for various medical uses, popularized as a part of the counterculture, criminalized and abandoned scientifically, and how they are now coming back within science and medicine in what he calls a renaissance. He reviews the current science of psychedelics: how they affect the brain, how they might be used in medicine to treat addiction, depression, and the fear of death faced by terminal cancer patients, and how they might improve the lives of "healthy normals" too. And, in a chapter titled "Travelogue" (since he went on several trips), he tries the drugs himself and writes about his experiences.

Pollan distinguishes psychedelics from "drugs of abuse" - opioids, meth, or even tobacco, each of which are toxic and addicting. Comparatively, psychedelics are fairly safe (Pollan even got the green light to try them from his cardiologist). That is not to say he endorses unlimited use of psychedelics. With only one exception, Pollan takes his trips with the help of guides. Although the guides are "underground" (not acting legally), they are trained specialists who screen out anyone who cannot safely take psychedelics, prepare each client for a safe trip, stay with them during the trip to ensure safety, and then help them debrief and process what happened afterward.

One of the most interesting themes of the book concerns the tension between psychedelics and science. For one thing, in the 1950s and 1960s, scientists had been doing promising psychedelic research in many areas (such as treating alcohol addiction) when the backlash against psychedelics led to the drugs becoming illegal and all of the research shelved and - for many - forgotten. We often view science as objective truth, but in this case, social and cultural factors led scientists to abandon research even as it was producing hopeful results.

Testing the effects of psychedelics using the normal protocols for testing other drugs is difficult to impossible. (He writes about the 1962 Good Friday Experiment in which ten divinity students received psilocybin while another ten received a placebo: "Telling them apart was not difficult, rendering the double blind a somewhat hollow conceit: those on the placebo sat sedately in their pews while others lay down or wandered about the chapel, muttering things like "God is everywhere" and "Oh, the Glory!")

Even more difficult for the current method of testing the effectiveness of drugs to handle are the importance of set and setting: "Set is the mind-set or expectation one brings to the experience, and setting is the environment in which it takes place." Both are crucial factors in influencing the trip one takes and how it affects them. On one hand, researchers can provide a set and setting to prime participants to have good trips that will maximize the benefits they gain. On the other hand, doing so introduces variables and bias in a way that many scientists would find unacceptable.

However, it appears that psychedelics do provide medical benefits for many when used carefully and with the care of a trained therapist or guide. Should we disregard psychedelics unless we can measure them using our current scientific paradigm? Or can we find a way to harness their benefits in a responsible way even though set and setting introduce variables that cannot be perfectly controlled?

I spoke to Pollan by phone and he answered a few questions about his new book.

JR: You always write yourself into your books, but the information you revealed about yourself in this book felt more personal. Why did you choose to open up more about yourself in this book and how do you feel about having done so?

MP: You're right in your observation. It is a much more personal book and it definitely exposes more of myself than previous books and in general I've used the first person as a narrative tool as much as anything, a place to stand to look at a story. But in this case, if you're having psychedelic experiences, they bring up lots of material. You can't make sense of it on the page without explaining who you are. The molecules lower your defenses and so when your defenses are lowered, you're more exposed. If you are going to be true to the experience you are having, you're going to reveal more about yourself.

And I also made a decision early on I was going to refuse to be embarrassed by what I wrote and that if I really wanted to be honest about the experience I had to put aside how it made me look and what I might be revealing about myself. The experiences are hard enough to write about as it is and then if you're also trying to spin them to hide yourself or make yourself look better than you are, you're not going to provide a very satisfying account to the reader. So it's not like I'm on a new confessional jag as a writer but it was really part and parcel of the experience. I just don't know how you would describe them without - it's not the molecule that's creating the experience, it's you. The molecule is amplifying mental processes that are already at work and if you want to describe those mental processes, well, they are you. Or me.

JR: I love that when we got a picture into your mind, you're still thinking about plants. On that note, there was one part of this book felt very familiar to me when you went looking for Psilocybin mushrooms with Paul Stamets. I felt like, while this is a different sort of book, it's still Michael Pollan. Inoticed,you seem to have given mushrooms the Botany of Desire treatment, speculating why they evolved psychoactive compounds.

MP: Even though they are not exactly a domesticated creature, I always think about the other species' point of view too. And I have since Botany of Desire. I actually think of that chapter as the Botany of Desire-ish chapter of this book because I really am trying to get inside the mushroom's head or whatever it is.

JR: Cap?

MP: Yeah, cap, right. And since I said that, there's been some interesting new research on what's in it for the mushroom and why they have this chemical. There was a really cool study that came out that found that this gene to produce psilocybin has spread amongst several different kinds of mushrooms. It's not a single evolutionary path. It's been kind of horizontally transferred because of its usefulness. And the authors hypothesize that the mushroom's competing with arthropods for a food source. For decaying plant matter and animal feces and things like that. And the chemical helps the mushroom prevail in that competition presumably by discombobulating the insects so they don't feed as efficiently.

JR: Interesting.

MP: Yeah, really interesting. So that would suggest it is a defense chemical of a certain kind that - I guess I do say this in the book - that it makes more sense to confuse the predator than to kill it because if you kill it, you'll select for resistance whereas if you confuse it, it will just go like, "What was I doing here? Where was that cow patty?" And it will just kind of lose interest. And also, psychedelics do diminish appetite. I was never hungry during my trips. So we're still in the realm of speculation but it is very interesting to think about why this chemical would be preserved in natural selection because it fits so well into the serotonin receptor.

JR: You comment kind of repeatedly throughout the book about the ineffability of the psychedelic experience. When you were interviewing the other people who have already taken psychedelics, had you already tried them? Were you already speaking their language?

MP: Especially in the chapter on the renaissance, I hadn't tried them yet. I hadn't tried them yet. And so I listened carefully and worked very hard to convey their experiences as best I could and the variety of the experiences and the intensity. But I didn't speak their language yet.

I kind of get it more, because when people describe this, you sort of imagine an uncontrollable hallucination when someone says, "I traveled into my body and looked at my cancer, or my fear." But it isn't quite like that. It's sort of more like a waking dream or a particularly intense daydream. You can turn it off. You can move. You can decide to go somewhere else.

Hallucination isn't exactly the right word for it. I don't know what is the right word for it. Someone called it an intrapsychic movie and that's sort of close. But it's not completely out of your control in the way a schizophrenic's hallucination would be. You know you're not really inside your body but you've kind of gone there imaginatively. So those accounts make more sense to me now than they did before.

JR: I'm curious what it was like for you to try to describe the indescribable and, I'm just imagining your perspective having listened to others describe it when you couldn't relate, and then you could relate, and trying to describe your own, and how that changed your perspective and what the challenges are to write a book that is based on this experience that can't be described.

MP: Well, it's not that it can't be described. It's difficult to describe. Anything can be described - it's how close do you get to the reality of the experience and that's the challenge. You can describe it poorly, or partially, or sketchily.

I found a few approaches. I did approach that chapter - the Travelogue chapter - with a great deal of trepidation. Like, how am I going to do this? How am I going to keep this interesting? You know, you don't like hearing about other people's dreams. There's nothing more boring than that. And they are sort of like dreams, although they have a lot more coherence, I think.

I found that two things were helpful. One was writing about the experience sort of the way a memoirist writes about childhood. When you read a good memoir of childhood or any earlier phase of someone's life, they toggle back and forth between their adult perspective and the child's perspective. And it really is in the tension between those two, or the space between those two perspectives that the writing acquires a certain force and credibility. If you were just in the child's perspective, you would learn a lot less than you would when you toggle back and forth and the adult weighs in and then the child weighs in. It's the same person, but there's a switch back and forth in perspective.

So I sort of did the same thing and that was to be inside the experience as the person who is tripping, who is believing everything and seeing all of these crazy things and then stepping outside to kind of frankly acknowledge how crazy it sounds, how implausible it is. There's a little riff in the book where I talk about - on the LSD trip - these powerful feelings I had of love. I well understood how thin they sounded but they were so powerful and I just talked about it. I kind of broke the fourth wall, like an actor turning to the audience, and I felt that was the best way to deal with it. To just be really frank and say it feels like this, but I know it reads like this. And that was one helpful technique. It's obviously for the reader to judge if this all works, but that was helpful to me.

The other was when I was experiencing things that were so far beyond the usual conventions of narrative such as the toad trip where not only have I lost a sense of self, character to write about, but I've lost a sense of time and a sense of place, because material reality was obliterated too. Time was obliterated. How do you write a story without those three ingredients? You really need those three ingredients.

So I resort to metaphor. Metaphor is really how - it's how poets deal with the ineffable. You get the right metaphor and it crystallizes a whole complex of emotion and insight if you choose it well. So I just kind of threw a couple metaphors at the wall. One was being blown up in a thermonuclear blast and being in the middle of one of those houses they erected in the Bikini Atoll and then blew up so they could see the force of the nuclear explosion. Another was being strapped to a rocket and feeling the G-forces mount as you climb through the atmosphere completely unprotected. And then the third was let's go back to before the Big Bang - not that any of us remember this - but from what we know from the cosmology, there was no time and there was no matter, there was just pure energy and that's what it felt like. And I said, it was a little like that. And so we can use metaphor to go places we really can't go descriptively. And I don't know if those are brilliant or original metaphors, but they helped. They helped.

It turned out to be a really enjoyable thing to write. I just loved the challenge of it. As someone who usually works as a journalist in this tight little box of checkable facts, here I was describing a purely imaginary world and that was very liberating.

JR: I'll bet. As an aside, this is something I relate to. As I am healing from PTSD, I'll have these incredibly profound experiences, and I can describeit,like you said, but I can't convey how profound it feels, the magnitude of it. And it sounds crazy. But it feels real. I'll come off of it and I'll want to tell somebody that something big happened, but there are no words. So I related to what you wrote because I've had that experience.

MP: I think that's it. The amplitude, the intensity of the experience. You can describe it but it's kind of cloaked in this emotional power that is very hard to get across.

JR: How did your body feel when your ego had entirely dissolved while on your trip?

MP: There is a bodily sensation. The sensation of merging. Very soft. You feel kind of unbounded. Like your skin is permeable. Everything is permeable. It starts as kind of a heady experience but it did have a physical component, and it was very pleasant.

JR: A running theme throughout this book is the difficulty science has in measuring the effects or benefits of psychedelic drugs. Do you think we should continue to seek ways to study psychedelics using the current scientific paradigm that calls for double-blinded studies under controlled conditions by researchers who are unbiased outsiders, or do you think perhaps psychedelics have something to teach us about how we need to change science?

MP: Psychedelics really are a challenge. It is very hard to blind these studies, although they have had some success. Roland Griffiths talks about how he can fool not just his volunteers but his guides, his therapists, I forget what the percentage is, where they mistook the placebo session for a psychedelic session. It's really hard to do. I think it's worth trying.

There is a value in double blind studies if only a rhetorical value in that they persuade the FDA and the regulators so if you are going to try to - if you want to move these medicines to approval by the FDA you have to play by the rules you have. But you need to recognize the limitations. And when they talked to the FDA about this, the FDA was not troubled by the whole problem, interestingly enough. They had a pretty broad attitude about it, but I think they respected the efforts to try.

There's so many elements. One is reducing the number of variables. What do you do with the music? There's this weird variable. You're playing Bach, you're playing Pat Metheny, and then there is of course the attitude of the therapist which has a profound effect on the experience.

You know maybe the challenge is to stop calling it psychedelic therapy and acknowledge it really is a package that you're testing. And I don't know if the FDA will have a pathway for that but you have really a psychedelic-assisted type of therapy. And some of the papers used that term but I noticed when they are doing the official drug trial papers they just say "psychedelic therapy" because of the FDA tests drugs, they don't test a whole therapeutic package that involves talk therapy and pharmacology.

I think academically it's really interesting the questions it raises about the conventions we have for testing drugs, which we should realize are historical artifacts. We didn't start testing drugs that way until 1962 and there may be better ways to do it that need to be developed and applied for things like psychedelics. I'm not sure. But it certainly makes you think about the whole regime as not necessarily inevitable or the only way to do it.

JR: It seems like, as with any type of psychotherapy, there's an interaction between the patient and the therapist, or the patient and the music even. Even if you gave everybody the same music, not everybody likes the same music.

MP: That's right. And what if you don't like the music that you're hearing? It affected my experience. So that's a weird variable but it seems to be very important to the success of the session.

JR: I noticed at one point you wrote they were trying psychedelics in very sterile, hospital-like conditions and...

MP: And it got bad results. People freaked out. There are little odd things that kind of prime you for a spiritual experience in America. They give you the pill in a chalice instead of a little paper cup. And there's a Buddha in the room and a ceramic mushroom, and so the rooms are priming a spiritual experience. I don't think it's an accident that the American researchers hear a lot more about mystical experiences from their volunteers than the English do. They do hear about ego dissolution, and those two things may actually be the same but with different labels. That's what I suspect. But there's no question that the orientation of the researchers is affecting the results they are getting. And that's why I think that going to phrase 3 which will be much bigger trials conducted by people somewhat less invested in the outcome, the results might be not as good.

JR: Most ofpsychedelicuse you describe is done in the care of a therapist or guide of some sort. However, many Americans take psychedelics on their own, without such precautions. I've got a question, but I'd like to give you the context first. First of all, where I live, a native plant produces psychoactive compounds that were traditionally used by Native Americans when men came of age.

MP: What is it called?

JR: Datura wrightii. Some people have died taking it. Second, I told my therapist that I am reading your book and joked that, because I made my own sourdough starter and baked bread and made cheese after reading Cooked, I'd probably end up taking drugs after reading this one.

MP: [Laughs] How did she react?

JR: She told me, "Please do not do that. That would interfere with what we are trying to do here." I did not ask why. It's possible she's just not open to drugs because they are drugs.

MP: There are a lot of people like that in psychiatry. They are very troubled by psychedelics because the symptoms present as psychosis and that's what they are trained to see. There was a Letter to the Editor in the New York Times on Sunday in response to an article I wrote two weeks ago about guides, and then I describe one of my own experiences from the book, and the psychiatrist who is on the faculty at UPenn writes this letter saying people should not use these drugs, they result in psychotic episodes such as the one I had had. So this guy was willing to diagnose my trip as a psychotic episode from a distance of 3000 miles and he was wrong.

And they've been wrong all through this history. They originally thought that the drugs induced psychosis, they called them psychotomimetics as a result. But it never occurs to them that maybe their diagnostic criteria have a problem.

JR: He just violated the Goldwater rule.  

MP: I know! I know! That was the other thing. I was tempted to write him back. They are so persnickety about that, and there he was. But it was more revealing of him than me so it was interesting.

JR: I am curious if you heard of any circumstances or cases in which somebody should not do this, or a reason they should not do it. If you have a therapist or a guide vetting you and making sure you have a safe trip, did you hear of any pitfalls that would lead someone to be a bad candidate for taking psychedelics?

MP: One of the things you want from a guide is for them to screen you, to make sure you're not at risk either because of some other drug you're taking or because you are at risk for schizophrenia or you have family history. Even the underground guides take a medical history and ask you lots of questions and ask you what meds you're on. And that kind of care I think is really important.

There are people who should not take these drugs. They are definitely not for everyone. If you are at risk for schizophrenia, you will get screened out of any of the university trials.  And it's interesting, many of the guides reject people. Someone comes to them, they think they have a serious mental illness, and they don't want to work with them because of the risk.

So I think that is a very important issue, and it's one of the values of having a guide. How are you going to make that judgment about yourself? I guess some people can make that judgment, you know, I've got a brother who is schizophrenic or maybe I shouldn't mess around with these drugs. But it's hard to generalize. I've been saying this in my interviews, but then I got this very moving letter from a woman who did have psychosis of some kind and had found psychedelics very helpful. So there are some people, I am sure, who were helped, but you don't recommend people who are in that extreme state to roll the mental dice. And you are rolling the mental dice with a psychedelic. There are psychological risks.

JR: Toward the end of the book, you comment briefly on the inadequacies of the mental health care system. And you kind of give some ways in which psychedelics could help and also some reasons why maybe our system won't let them in. Where do you see psychedelics as fitting in mental health care?

MP: Well, a lot of it depends on the receptivity of the community of therapists and doctors. I think that they are becoming more receptive than they were just a few years ago. When NYU first started studying cancer patients [using psychedelics to help terminal cancer patients cope with fear of death], the oncologists would not refer people to them. The oncologists were really negative about the whole thing. They thought it represented giving up and just kind of accepting that you'd failed to successfully treat a cancer. They see every death as a personal defeat. It's kind of the mindset. But now, I was just at this training program for psychedelic guides, there were three or four oncologists there who want to add psychedelic therapy to their oncology practice. So I think that it's moving quickly right now.

Although somebody just sent me a study, a survey of psychiatrists. And they were still very skeptical of psychedelic therapy. They all agree there should be more research but they were more skeptical. So I think it will take a little while, but it's happening.

And I'm meeting many psychiatrists and MDs at my events. They seem very open-minded. Of course they are a self-selecting group to come to my events. But the strongest criticism I hear is "we need more research," and I agree with that. We need more research. So I think if psychiatry and mental health practitioners more generally embrace this, it will be because the science proves that it's a valuable medicine, and they definitely need new tools. They have so little innovation since the SSRIs antidepressants and there's a general recognition that they are not working as well as they used to, and there's many people that they don't help. If only out of desperation, they should be taking a look at this. And I think that they will.

You know, many of the psychiatric drugs that are commonly prescribed are far more toxic than LSD or psilocybin. The side effects - I'm not talking about SSRIs, although they have their own side effects that people don't like - I'm talking about the antipsychotics - the Stelazine and Thorazine and those drugs. Really serious side effects. The toxicity of psychiatric medicines is really serious, and that you would not deign to study a drug that has essentially little or no toxicity is kind of remarkable.

JR: You talk a bit about not just using psychedelics to treat sick people, but giving them to so-called "healthy normals" too. Do you think there's a benefit to that?

MP: I think that there is. You know, "the betterment of well people" as Bob Jesse put it in the book. I mean, look, I got benefit from it. And I'm fairly healthy, fairly normal - I don't want to overstate the case.

It appears that psychedelics are helpful for depression, addiction, anxiety, obsession. We all have those illnesses to one degree or another in that we're all stuck in habits of thought that don't serve us well. Especially as we get older, we get more and more ossified and the idea of something that could lubricate cognition - or "shake the snowglobe" - could be useful for lots of people.

In the same way that garden-variety neurotics go to receive benefits from going to therapy, those folks would stand the benefit from psychedelic therapy possibly. You don't have to have a diagnosis of a serious mental illness to get psychotherapy. It benefits people who are sad, it benefits people who are confused about life decisions or have problems of various kinds or suffer from grief. Grief is not a mental illness, but people seek therapy for that. So, in that whole universe of people seeking help, many of them, it would be a shame if it were not somehow made available to them. I don't know how we'd do that exactly. There's a lot of work to be done figuring out how to incorporate these medicines in the culture if indeed they prove out - when they go into the next stage of trail. But I think it's something we need to address and work on.

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Oklahoma Expected to Become Latest Medical Marijuana State by Month’s End

Wed, 06/06/2018 - 11:48
A voter initiative is on the June 26 ballot and the polls are looking good.

One of the reddest of red states is set to go green later this month. Voters in Oklahoma will go to the polls on June 26 to decide whether to support the Question 778 medical marijuana initiative, and all indications are that it will win.

The state’s Sooner Poll showed support for the initiative at 57.5 percent last month. That’s down slightly from January when the same poll had support at 61 percent, but still enough to pull off a victory at the polls later this month, especially given the limited organized opposition to it so far.

One opposition group, Oklahomans Against 788, has a Facebook page, but according to state campaign finance reports, has only collected a paltry $755—and from only two donors. The two political action committees supporting the initiative, Oklahomans for Health and Yes on 778, on the other hand, have raised more than $31,000 and have more than $9,000 in the bank for media buys this month. (Oklahoma isn’t a huge media market.)

Newly emerging opposition from conservative religious figures is probably too late to make a difference, but a group calling itself Oklahoma Faith Leaders, whose head is a former consultant to Oklahoma Republican U.S. Senator James Lankford, enlisted Lankford to issue a press release last week warning that the initiative would be “harmful to the social fabric of Oklahoma.”

Lankford went on to blame outside agitators with hidden agendas: “This state question is being sold to Oklahomans as a compassionate medical marijuana bill by outside groups that actually want access to recreational marijuana,” Lankford added. “Most of us have seen first-hand the damage done to families and our communities from recreational marijuana use.”

It’s unclear just what “damage done” Lankford was referring to, but the initiative does not legalize recreational marijuana, and if any “outside groups” are involved, it is certainly not evident from the campaign finance reports.

Instead of sending Oklahoma on the path to perdition, passing the initiative would bring the state up to speed with most of the rest of the country. Currently, 30 states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana, while another 15 states have laws allowing the use of CBD cannabis oil for medicinal purposes.

The Oklahoma initiative is a full-fledged medical marijuana measure, which would allow patients to grow their own medicine; create a system of licensed dispensaries, cultivation, and processing facilities; set taxes at a relatively low 7 percent; and bar localities from using zoning laws to block dispensaries (although they wouldn’t be allowed within 1,000 feet of a school).

It’s the culmination of a long, arduous effort to legalize medical marijuana in the Sooner state. For years, the Republican-dominated state legislature has refused to move on the issue, instead grudgingly approving only clinical trials of CBD cannabis oil for minors suffering from epilepsy in 2015. The following year the legislature removed the age cap and expanded the trials to include other diseases and conditions. But it has refused to go any further, including this year, when a much more limited medical marijuana bill, Senate Bill 1120, died in March for lack of support.

The initiative itself has faced a similarly arduous path. Originally aimed at the November 2016 ballot, the measure successfully gathered the required signatures in the summer of 2016, and they were verified in September 2016. But the date of signature submission, a rewrite of the ballot title required by state officials, and the court battle that followed meant the measure didn’t make the 2016 ballot. The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled in favor of Oklahomans for Health in March 2017, and Gov. Mary Fallin (R) nine months later proclaimed that the initiative would appear on the June 2018 primary election ballot.

That’s the first time since 2005 that an Oklahoma governor selected a date different from the general election for an initiative. Now, despite it being an off-year primary election, Oklahomans will finally have a chance to join the ranks of the medical marijuana states. But they’re going to have to actually go out and vote to make it happen.


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Did Michael Pollan Kill God? Inside the NYT Food Columnist's Exploration of Magic Mushrooms

Tue, 06/05/2018 - 04:58
From Pollan’s new book “How to Change Your Mind” — currently on top of the New York Times best-seller list — it looks like he got what he was after.

Michael Pollan had enlightenment envy.

Unlike most patients in clinical trials of psilocybin, when Pollan ate a magic mushroom, he wasn’t terrified by a terminal illness, he wasn’t suffering from alcoholism or depression and he hadn’t been diagnosed with a personality disorder.

But he “envied the radical new perspectives” of the people in psychedelic therapy whom he interviewed, and he found the idea of “shaking the snow globe” of his mental life appealing. “I also wasn’t sure I’d ever had a spiritual experience,” he said, and in late middle age, he felt “time was growing short.”

From Pollan’s new book “How to Change Your Mind” — currently on top of the New York Times best-seller list — it looks like he got what he was after.

But Pollan’s account of his journey contests the value or necessity of millennia of spiritual struggles, ages of religious insights and even, most radically, belief in the existence of God.

His lyric depiction of his “egoless, nondual state of consciousness,” of the “obliteration” of the very category of “personal,” of his “I” who was nevertheless not his self, and who was “unbounded by any body” and had “no desires of any kind,” reminded me of William James’s case studies in “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” Mystical experiences, James wrote, qualify, as “states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance.”

But if a single psilocybin trip could rewire Pollan’s brain, or ours, in the way that Buddhist monks take lifetimes to achieve, are the years we spend wrestling with faith, or ragging ourselves for being lousy meditators, just a waste of time?

Did Pollan really eat his way to a spiritual experience, or was it just a chemical experience — is there even a difference? If ’shrooms open doors to the depths of ineffable truths, does it really matter if God is dead or not?

By the time I hit middle age, I’d worked out my answer to “Is God dead?” without benefit of psychedelics. I got there in stages, like Kübler-Ross’s five stages of dealing with death, only instead of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, for me it was faith, reason, nihilism, mysticism and omg-we’ve-run-out-of-diapers.

I grew up in the same Newark neighborhood that Philip Roth did, though a generation later. Orthodoxy failed me when I asked my mother, who kept a kosher home, why it was OK for us to eat spare ribs at Ming’s on Sunday nights, and she explained that God was not troubled when our kind of Jews, the Jews of the Weequahic section, made common sense accommodations to modern life. Except, of course, when it came to dating shiksas, which carried a mandatory sentence of “he’s dead to me.”

Through the loophole of reasonableness that she opened, I drove a truck bearing I❤SCIENCE license plates. Culturally, I couldn’t have been more Jewish, but theologically, I became the Voltaire of Schuyler Avenue. Like 12-year-old Ozzie Freedman in Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews,” the 12-year-old me challenged God’s power, questioned God’s morality, even disputed God’s existence. By the time I went off to college, it was to become a molecular biologist – to learn the scientific method and master the evidence for the secular materialist account of life.

But I also learned in college that ruthless doubt, once unleashed, can lay waste to more than childhood faith. It can reduce love to libido, altruism to evolution, justice to privilege, science to politics, taste to class, virtue to tribe, merit to luck, skepticism to cynicism and meaning to myth. I know that there are happy atheists, but it was to the dead end of dread that relentless rationality led me. It also led me to leave J.D. Watson’s lab and seek out new mentors: Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche and Samuel Beckett.

What rescued me from nihilism was finding God everywhere, except in religion. That’s what I suspect a rising number of Americans mean when they tell pollsters that they’re “spiritual but not religious.” For me, it was meditation that set me on that path. I took it up as an adult, to stop grinding my teeth, but meditation took me to a kind of DIY mysticism. My toolkit has ranged from Rumi to Ken Wilber, from Huxley’s perennial philosophy to Heschel’s radical amazement, from mindfulness to gratitude — to being dumbstruck with awe at nature, at art, at my newborn babies’ fingers curled around mine, at Katz’s pastrami, at the starry sublime.

Still, I’m not much of a mystic – I bet I spend more time sleepwalking than mindfully experiencing the moment. But quotidian reality, if we remember to notice it, can be a portal to enlightenment. “I had developed a set of fairly dependable mental algorithms for navigating whatever life threw at me,” Pollan says about his daily routine, “and while these are undeniably useful tools for coping with everyday life and getting things done, they leave little space for surprise or wonder or change.” Pollan needed a drug, and a rupture from ordinary reality, to experience transcendence. But my experience is that reality itself can disclose the divine. If you pay attention, everything — not just sunsets, but laundry, too — can be surprising, even startling. Everything can be an occasion for wonderment; everything can prompt the ultimate question, “Why is there anything at all?”

Psilocybin is a turbocharged route to finding enchantment in everyday life. More than a thousand published papers attest to its safety when administered in appropriate settings. I have no problem with Pollan or anyone else taking a short cut to illumination. In fact, according to a Johns Hopkins study in a recent Journal of Psychopharmacology, the drug works best when it’s combined with the kind of slowpoke old-school stuff I’ve turned to, like meditation, progressive muscle relaxation and mindful breathing. Psilocybin, the Hopkins study says, brought about the largest, most significant, and most enduring positive changes in “interpersonal closeness, gratitude, life meaning/purpose, forgiveness, death transcendence, daily spiritual experiences, religious faith and coping” when subjects also meditated, had a mindfulness practice, kept a journal and “engaged in activities they personally judged to facilitate spiritual growth (e.g. being in nature, contemplative movement, artwork or service activities).”

William James, shaking the snow globe more than a century before Michael Pollan, also tried a chemical on himself — nitrous oxide. He called the “metaphysical revelation” that came to him when high on laughing gas “a reconciliation.” This was how he explained it: “It is as if the opposites of the world, whose contradictoriness and conflict make all our difficulties and troubles, were melted into unity.” Every religion, every mystic tradition, contains that vision of the world. You can reach it with fasting, with sitting, with prayer; you can find it in a fungus; you can see it in a grain of sand, and hold infinity in the palm of your hand.

“Melted into unity”: What a heartening prospect. Whether it’s a struggle or a thrill ride, the seeker’s path to purpose is the world’s path to peace. If God isn’t dead, She won’t care how you get there.

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Medicine Residue Is Everywhere in Our Rivers and Lakes—and Fish Are Behaving Strangely

Mon, 06/04/2018 - 23:30
We have a new major environmental problem on our hands.

For all the well-documented sources of environmental pollution—think chemical manufacturers, energy plants, mining operations and agricultural processes—there’s another major source of contamination that continues to get short shrift by those charged with protecting the nation’s waterways and the public’s health: Pharmaceuticals and personal care products.

“Across the board, we don’t have our heads around this problem,” said Emma Rosi, senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. And considering America’s voracious appetite for pharmaceuticals—there were 3.7 billion drugs ordered or provided through physician visits alone in 2015—the scope of the problem is unsurprisingly staggering.

Chemical compounds found in pharmaceutical and personal care products are showing up ubiquitously in the nation’s rivers, lakes, groundwater and drinking water—even remote regions of national parks. Up to 80 percent of streams in the U.S. alone are contaminated with chemicals, including pharmaceuticals, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). What’s more, the sheer volume of different persistent compounds found in the environment vastly complicates the regulation and remediation of them.

“These are potent compounds, that’s why we use them,” Rosi added. “But if they don’t get broken down and they enter the environment, they are just as potent to the organisms there.”

So, how are these chemicals finding their way out into the nation’s waterways? The primary culprit is human waste—urine and feces—that makes its way to wastewater treatment plants unequipped to filter out all the various contaminants in the water. But it’s not just human waste that’s a problem.

A recent study found levels of certain pharmaceuticals “substantially higher” in plants that received wastewater from drug manufacturing facilities compared to those that didn’t. The study—which looked at 120 different drugs and pharmaceutical degrades—concluded that these facilities are an “important, national-scale source of pharmaceuticals to the environment.”

Some unwanted drugs are flushed down the toilet or tossed into the trash. Hospital waste is another avenue. But while we know how and where pharmaceutical wastes are getting into the environment, we don’t yet know the full extent of the problem in terms of their myriad impacts on delicate ecosystems.

“There’s insignificant research to understand the scope of this issue,” said Rosi. “And I would argue that there’s not enough research funding for scientists to really understand the influence of these compounds.”

Even so, what we know is that some of these chemical compounds can profoundly affect aquatic life. Rosi breaks it down three ways—the first is related to their endocrine disrupting properties.

In a study of fish at 19 different National Wildlife Refuges, for example, scientists from the USGS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that between 60 to 100 percent of the fish studied were intersex, meaning they had female egg cells growing on their testes. The scientists linked this phenomenon to elevated levels of estrogen in the water. But estrogen-like chemicals aren’t the only culprit.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee suggests that higher levels of metformin—a commonly prescribed diabetes drug—causes the development of intersex testes in male fathead minnows, reduces their size and affects their ability to reproduce.

Pharmaceuticals are also a driver of environmental change, said Rosi. The presence of antidepressants in the nation’s waterways, for example, can disrupt and alter fish behavior, including breeding patterns. The presence of cimetidine, a commonly used antacid and antihistamine, has the potential to negatively impact the health of freshwater invertebrates and bacterial biofilm, another study suggests. Levels of cimetidine are on the rise in the nation’s streams and rivers.

The third way pertains to their potential impact on human health. “There’s a lot of concern about antibiotic resistance,” said Tia-Marie Scott, a physical scientist with the USGS.

There are more than 250 million antibiotic prescriptions written in the U.S. each year. But because the human body cannot metabolize antibiotics fully, and because wastewater treatments plants don’t filter them out, experts fear that the release of these drugs into the environment is contributing to the development and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which is estimated to be responsible for at least 23,000 deaths in the U.S. every year. And it’s not just human waste that’s a problem; agriculture is another major contributor of antibiotic releases.

“This is a whole can of worms that we’re only just able to start getting an understanding of,” Scott said.

Just how big is the problem?

Studies conducted in the U.S. illustrate how pharmaceutical compounds and chemicals found in personal care products are present throughout the nation’s rivers, lakes, groundwater and drinking water in alarming rates.

A 2011 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report about their impacts in drinking water comprises a number of studies, including one by the USGS that found 53 of 74 testing locations had one or more pharmaceuticals in the water. In 2010, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-funded analysis of 48 research publications found 54 active pharmaceutical ingredients and 10 metabolites that been detected in treated drinking water.

The Great Lakes have come under scrutiny, too. In a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study of Lake Michigan, 32 pharmaceuticals and personal care products were detected in the water, and another 30 were detected in the lake’s sediment. But it’s not just waterways situated near more urbanized areas that are vulnerable to contamination. Pharmaceutical compounds have even made it to isolated regions of the U.S.—including a number of National Parks in Northern Colorado, for example.

“That really gets at how we’re seeing concentrations that are detectable at our most pristine environments,” said Scott. Nor is this a problem confined to the continental U.S. Europe has been researching the problem in its waterways for quite a number of years, while the Alaskan Department of Environmental Conservation's Fish Monitoring Program keeps tabs on the presence of pharmaceuticals in the state’s fish populations. “This problem occurs pretty much everywhere,” Scott said.

How to tackle the problem

The decades-old National Environmental Policy Act gives Food and Drug Administration (FDA) administrators “mechanisms” to stop persistent pharmaceutical compounds from entering the environment, said Scott Graham, director of the Public Engagement and Science Communication Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The problem, said Graham, is that the FDA relies on pharmaceutical companies to conduct their own research into the environmental toll of their products, and this research is then presented to “environmental safety teams” at the agency—teams that are often overworked and understaffed. This leads to evaluations being conducted by FDA personnel who are “ill-qualified to make accurate judgments” on the drug’s potential environmental impact, he added. 

“[Drugs] end up getting approved because we have the pharmaceutical companies doing the wrong kind of science which is then being evaluated by the wrong kind of evaluator,” Graham said, who calls 2016 FDA environmental guidelines regarding drugs with estrogenic, androgenic, or thyroid activity a “weak” step forward.

The sheer scope of the problem is too vast for one agency to tackle alone. Rather, Graham advocates for a multi-pronged approach between different federal agencies. But with that in mind, EPA officials also admit in the 2011 GAO report that there is “no formal mechanism, such as a long-term strategy or formal agreement, to manage and sustain these collaborative efforts.”

Just take the staggering amount of waste produced in the U.S. Some 32 billion gallons of wastewater flows through 700,000 miles of underground pipes daily. But wastewater treatment plants don’t have the technology to remove all pharmaceuticals during the treatment process—nor are they mandated to. That, and the nation’s sewage infrastructure is old and deteriorating. So much so, it’s estimated that 900 billion gallons of sewage are released each year into waterways through infrastructure leaks and sewage overflows.

According to the USGS’s Tia-Marie Scott, while some wastewater treatment plants are stepping up to the plate, there are no affordable “one size fits all engineering solutions” to tackle the vast variety of different compounds in the environment. Which leads to the EPA’s stance on this issue. No pharmaceuticals are currently on the EPA’s Primary Drinking Water Regulations.

“And I’m not even sure that’s a practical approach, because there are tens of thousands of emerging contaminants we’re identifying in our wastewater that could be of concern,” said Scott. “And the way our regulations are updated to accommodate new compounds, it doesn’t happen in a fast enough manner to deal with how many different chemicals are being used year after year, even day after day.”

There is a “green pharmacy” movement, pushing for the design of new drugs that biodegrade easily in the environment. But experts caution that the reason pharmaceuticals are so effective is that they’re designed to break down under very specific conditions. That’s why some argue that there also needs to be a cultural shift in the way Americans consume pharmaceuticals and personal care products.

“There are lots of things that we use in our everyday lives that we can reduce a little bit,” said Rosi. “Because if people understand that what they’re using and washing down their drains are ending up at their local rivers, streams, lakes, they might think twice. It doesn’t just go away.”

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